Aileen Wurnos was often described as being America’s first female serial killer.
Wurnos was born in 1956, in Rochester, Michigan. From the start, her life was a mess. Her father was both a diagnosed schizophernic and a sex offender who was incarcerated when Aileen was born and who hung himself in his jail cell when Aileen was 13. (Aileen reportedly never met him.) Aileeen’s mother abandoned her children when Aileen was four, leaving Aileen and her younger brother to be raised by their alcoholic grandparents. Aileen later said that she was regularly beaten by both grandparents and sexually abused by her grandfather. Aileen also said that she spent her youth dreaming of being famous and being loved, like Marilyn Monroe.
By the time she was eleven, Aileen was already having sex in return for food, cigarettes, and drugs. She was pregnant at 14, which she later said was the result of being raped by a friend of her grandfather’s. She gave up her son for adoption and dropped out of school when she was 15, the same year that her grandmother died of live failure. Kicked out of the house shortly afterwards, Aileen survived through sex work and lived a semi-nomadic existence. While other people her age were starting high school and looking forward to the future, Aileen was living in the woods and going for days without food.
By 1976, she had hitchhiked her way down to Florida and her life briefly seemed to turn around when she met and married a wealthy 69 year-old man named Lewis Fell. Fell was president of a yacht club and prominent enough that his marriage to Aileen was announced in the society pages. That marriage didn’t last, however. Aileen was arrested and served with a restraining order for reportedly beating Fell in much the same way that she later said her grandfather beat her. They were divorced within weeks and, for the next 13 years, Aileen’s life consisted of one arrest after another. She returned to sex work, hitchhiking on the highways. With her looks fading due to her lifestyle, Aileen resorted to carrying around a picture of her adopted sister’s children, showing it to potential customers and telling them that she needed money so that she could go to Miami and be with them, in an attempt to play on her customer’s sympathy. Wurnos was repeatedly raped and beaten by the men who picked her up. By the time she came to fame, she was suffering from PTSD and, in her own words, hated the world and men especially.
Wurnos shot and killed at least seven men in Florida in 1989 and 1990. At her trial, she claimed that every shooting was self-defense. She said that she had been raped and nearly killed by her first victim, who had previously be arrested for rape. She went on to say that all of her subsequent victims had been planning on raping but sh shot them first. Once she was on death row and waiting to be executed, she changed her story several times and said that only the first of the shootings was in self-defense and that the rest were simple robberies. The men, she explained, picked her up. She took their money and then she shot them because she didn’t want them reporting her to the police. Of course, she then later told documentarian Nick Broomfield that all of the killings actually were self-defense but that she changed her story because she hated Death Row and she was eager to die. There were a lot of stories when it came to Wurnos and determining what was true was often difficult.
That said, while Wurnos was undoubtedly a female serial killer, I doubt that she was our first. It depends on what you consider a serial killer to be, with some FBI profilers claiming that Wurnos was unique in that she eventually grew to enjoy killing and that she set out each night looking for someone to kill. That said, throughout history, there have been stories about women who married and murdered multiple men, the infamous black widows. Between 1884 and 1908, Belle Gunness murdered at least 14 people in Illinois and Minnesota. Working with her boyfriend, Martha Beck murdered an estimated 20 people in the late 40s. If so inclined, one could go all the way back to ancient Rome and read about the poisoner Lucasta, whose victims reportedly included at least one emperor.
So, no, Aileen Wurnos was not the first female serial killer but she was the first one to come to prominence after the term was coined. She was the first well-known female serial killer of the post-Ted Bundy era. And because she also committed her crimes at the dawn of the 24-hour media cycle, she achieved a level of fame that was denied to Gunness, Beck, and even Lucasta. Aileen held press conferences as she waited for her execution date. She made the news by alternatively praising and cursing the people who had arrested her and sent her to Death Row. She yelled at judges and threatened reporters. She was, for lack of a better term, good television. She became an icon to some, a sex worker who turned the tables on the potential killers who picked her up. She was also the subject of two documentaries from Nick Broomfield.
That was how I first found out about her. 2003’s Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer used to air on HBO frequently. The film followed the final days of Wurnos’s life and featured an interview with her in which she went from being surprisingly lucid and articulate to being frighteningly unhinged. While a sympathetic Broomfield tried to get her to discuss the circumstances that led to her committing the murders, Wurnos ranted about how the prison was using “sonic pressure” to control her mind. In 2002, when Wurnos was executed, her last words were to compare herself to the “mother ship” from Independence Day and to promise that she would return. With her wild eyes, rotting teeth, and unpredictable anger, Wurnos was frightening but, at the same time, there were brief moments of clarity where Wurnos seemed to understand the gravity of both what she had done and her current situation.
The same year that Broomfield released his documentary and a year after Wurnos was executed, a film called Monster was released. The feature directorial debut of Petty Jenkins, Monster starred Charlize Theron as Aileen Wurnos. Theron, who also signed on as a co-producer, would win her first Oscar for her performance as Wurnos and, indeed, when the film was first released, the majority of the attention centered on how the glamorous Theron transformed herself into the not-so glamorous Aileen Wurnos. Theron famously gained weight and wore prosthetic teeth in order to resemble Wurnos but, as anyone who has seen Broomfield’s documentaries can tell you, she also captured Wurnos’s odd speech patterns and her jittery physical movements. Theron perfectly recreated Wurnos’s trademark wide smile, which somehow managed to be both vulnerable and menacing at the same time. Theron deserved the praise that she got for her performance and she certainly deserved to win that Oscar. And yet, so much attention was paid to Theron’s performance and her physical transformation, that the overall film itself was a bit overshadowed. Along with being one of the saddest films ever made, Monster is a portrait of life on the fringes and of existence in the shadows of conventional American society.
The film opens with Wurnos siting underneath a highway overpass and staring down at a loaded gun, debating whether or not she should just end it all. Occasionally, she provides narration, discussing how she eventually came to find herself homeless and struggling to survive. Her narration frequently switches from being insightful and darkly comedic to being angry and bitter, often in the same sentence. Deciding not to kill herself, she instead goes to a gay bar when she meets another outsider, Selby Wall (Christina Ricci). Selby awkwardly flirts, telling Aileen that she’s the most beautiful woman in the bar. Aileen replies that she’s “not into women.” (Of course, she also lies and claims that she’s only in the bar because her truck broke down and she’s just waiting for a ride.) Yet, before long, Selby and Aileen are in love.
Selby was a heavily fictionalized version of Aileen’s real girlfriend, who didn’t want to have anything to do with Monster and who requested that her real name not be used in the film. In the film’s reimagining of the story, Selby has been exiled to Florida from Ohio, rejected by her religious father. Selby lives with her homophobic aunt but yearns for escape. That’s what Aileen provides for her and, to an extent, Selby provides the same thing to Aileen. There’s an unexpected sweetness to the early scenes between Aileen and Selby, albeit a sweetness that it continually undercut by the fact that we know we’re watching a movie about a serial killer. We watch as they go roller skating together and as they share their first kiss afterwards. We watch as they run off together and as they get their first place together and yet, at the same time, we also watch as Selby pressures Aileen to continue “hooking” so that Aileen will have enough money to support the two of them. As played by Ricci, Selby is a character about whom many viewers will have mixed feelings. When she first appears, it’s hard not to have sympathy for her. She seems to be a naïve outsider. But, as the film continues, she sometimes reveals herself to be just as manipulative as Aileen. Selby may claim to be shocked when she discovers that Aileen has been killing and robbing the men who pick her up but, just like Aileen, we don’t quite buy it. Selby knew what was going on, even if she wasn’t willing to admit it to herself.
In the film, Aileen’s first murder is presented as having been committed in self-defense. The man is a rapist and a sadist and was clearly planning to kill Aileen once he was done with her. Again, as portrayed in both the film and Wurnos’s version of events, he unquestionably got what he deserved. With one notable exception, Aileen’s subsequent murders are presented a bit more ambiguously. The majority of the men that Aileen meets are threatening, even if she shoots most of them before they get a chance to try anything. One can understand why some felt that the film was a bit too sympathetic to Aileen while, at the same time, also acknowledging that the men who would pick up a hitchhiker and expect sex in return are not exactly going to be the greatest group of guys.
Only Aileen’s final victim is presented as being a sympathetic figure. Played by the great Scott Wilson, he picks up Aileen just to get her out of the rain, refuses her offer of sex, and says that he and his wife would be willing to help her get to wherever she needs to go. He picks Aileen up for her own safety but, when Aileen tries to get out of the car, he sees her gun and Aileen kills him to keep him quiet. It’s a powerful scene, brilliantly acted by both Theron and Wilson and it’s hard to watch. (It’s also debatable whether or not it actually happened, which is the danger when it comes to making a movie about someone like Aileen Wurnos.) It’s this scene that shows how far Wurnos has gone. “You don’t need to do this,” he tells her and Wurnos knows that he’s right but, by this point, she’s beyond going back.
The only other truly and unconditionally kind character in the film is Thomas (Bruce Dern), a former biker who allows Aileen to keep her things in his storage locker and who is perhaps the only character to really care about Aileen as a human being. (Even Selby mostly views Aileen as a way to escape her current life.) Thomas is a Vietnam vet, one who suffers from PTSD and who, as a result, understands Aileen’s anger and mood swings. Dern doesn’t get a lot of screen time but he’s a welcome presence whenever he shows up. In the end, though, Aileen knows that even Thomas’s kindness can’t save her from what’s going to happen.
As I said before, it’s a sad film. It’s always watchable because Theron, Ricci, and Dern all give such good performances but it’s still a film that’ll leave you shaken. It’s a trip to the fringes, the corners of existence where there are no exits beyond death. Those who have criticized the film for taking Wurnos at her word do have a point but, at the same time, Theron is often as frightening as she is sympathetic. The viewer may understand why Wurnos does what she does but they still would not want Wurnos anywhere near them. I imagine that, for every viewer who sympathizes with Wurnos, an equal number will breathe a sigh of relief at the knowledge that Wurnos was subsequently executed by the state of Florida. Myself, I’ve always been against the death penalty, regardless of who is sitting on death row or what their motives may have been. At the same time, I can understand why others support it. It’s a frightening world and the death penalty allows people to feel that there are consequences for committing the worst of crimes.
Monster was a critical and, somewhat surprisingly, a commercial hit. Theron won an Oscar and proved herself to be a serious actress. (One doubts Theron would have ever played Furiosa if she hadn’t first played Aileen Wurnos.) Though Patty Jenkins were struggle to get several other projects going, it wasn’t until 2017 that she would make a second film. That film, of course, would be Wonder Woman, a film that was as joyous as Monster was dark.